Sunday of week 25 of Ordinary Time


Commentary on Isaiah 55:6-9; Philippians 1:20-24.27; Matthew 20:1-16

UNDOUBTEDLY A MAJOR THEME running through the whole of the Old and New Testaments is that of ‘justice’. God is wholly just and we are called, both individually and corporately, to lives of justice also. The question, of course, is what do we mean by justice? What does the Scripture mean by justice? What is the justice of God? Some of the answers to these questions can be found in today’s Gospel passage. Reading this passage may call for some adjustment in our normal ways of thinking.

And this is just what the First Reading from Isaiah prepares us for. “My thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways not your ways – it is the Lord who speaks. Yes, the heavens are as high above earth as my ways are above your ways, my thoughts above your thoughts.” Growing in Christ means a constant shifting of our conventional ways of thinking and sometimes the adjustments do not come easily. To have the mind of Christ means, like him, to “empty” ourselves. In our case, to empty ourselves of many of the convictions we take for granted.

Hiring workers

Today’s Gospel is the parable of the workers in the vineyard, or rather, the hiring of workers for a vineyard. The parable is linked with the passage immediately preceding. (The divisions of our scriptures into chapters and verses were not done by the original writers. Sometimes these divisions are quite arbitrary and create unnatural breaks in the text. Because today’s passage begins a new chapter, we are inclined to overlook its relationship to what has gone just before in the previous chapter.)

The end of chapter 19 is a dialogue between Jesus and his disciples. This in turn followed the incident of the rich man, who was a devout Jew invited by Jesus to be a disciple. He declined because he could not let go of his material wealth. There follow the warnings by Jesus about material wealth as a real obstacle to being part of God’s Kingdom. The disciples, not yet fully convinced of this, still wonder what is in store for them as they have left all to follow Jesus. Jesus promises that they will have a very special place in his Kingdom and, even in this life, will be amply rewarded in having all their material and social needs fully met. And Jesus concludes by saying – no doubt with the rich man and his disciples in mind – “many that are first will be last, and the last first”.

At all hours

When we see the following parable as related to the above its meaning becomes very clear. The parable describes a vineyard owner going out several times during a day to get workers for his vineyard. He makes an agreement with each one of them for a wage of one denarius. This was the normal daily wage for a worker in Jesus’ time. The vineyard owner went out at 6 o’clock in the morning and again at 9, at noon and at 3 and 5 o’clock in the afternoon. It was normal for workers to gather at a crossroads or a market place waiting to be hired. Each time the vineyard owner assures the workers he will give them a “just wage”.

With just one hour of worktime left, the owner went out once more. He sees men waiting there and asks them, “Why have you been standing here idle all day?” “Because no one hired us” is their answer. They were idle, not because of laziness but because no one wanted to employ them. The parable in general seems to put a value on work and on the right to work. It says something about the curse of chronic unemployment bedevilling so many societies today.

Complaints

At the end of the day, the steward or bailiff is instructed to pay out the wages. Echoing the words of Jesus in the previous passage, he is told to start paying the workers “starting with the last arrivals and ending with the first”. Those who had come in at the last hour were paid their one denarius, as promised. However, when those who had been working since 6 o’clock in the morning were paid they were not at all happy to receive only one denarius. “The men who came last have done only one hour, and you have treated them the same as us, though we have done a heavy day’s work in all the heat,” they complained. Their complaints are reminiscent of the “murmuring” of the Israelites against Moses and Aaron in the desert (Exodus 16:3-8). Probably some of us feel a lot of sympathy for these early workers and think they got a raw deal.

Yet we do need to read carefully the reply of the vineyard owner, who clearly represents the Gospel view. “Did we not agree on one denarius” for the day’s work? As was emphasised at the beginning, this is understood as a just wage for one full day of work. The workers had accepted this fully. “I choose to pay the last-comer as much as I pay you. Have I no right to do what I like with my own? Why be envious because I am generous?”

There is an important lesson here about God’s justice. When seen from our often mathematical and narrow-minded viewpoint it often looks like injustice. We tend to think that if a person can do more, he is a better person and should have a greater reward. Why, for instance, is there such a disparity between the income of a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, and a bus driver? Which of these, in fact, really does more? Is this really just? Should a salary be based on what a person does or on what a person needs for a decent standard of living?

We even think that if we do more for God, he will somehow love us more and reward us more. That is very much at the background of today’s parable. For many of us, the workers were quite right to criticise their employer. They worked longer hours and should have got more money. But we need to realise that there is another way of looking at the situation.

God’s justice

First, by doing more for God and for others does not mean that God will love us more. No matter what we do or do not do he cannot love us more than he already does.

Second, God does not look at how much we do. He looks at our needs. Maybe we, in assessing the remuneration people get, should think along the same lines.

Some of the people in the Gospel, the “first” in today’s parable, thought that, because they had served the Law of the Lord, had over so many centuries “borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat”, God should love them in a special way. They were somehow better than others. Maybe there are some of us Catholics who think along the same lines.

But that is not the way God works. His disciples, the “last”, who have given up everything to be with him, will be the recipients of the same love and the same rewards. In fact, they may receive more in the sense that, unlike unbelieving Jews, they fully opened themselves to the love of God in following Jesus.

Our situation

And before we continue to side with the grumbling workers, it might help to remember our own situation. We ought to be very grateful that we have a God whose justice is so patently unjust. He loves Mary his Mother, he loves a Mother Teresa and he loves ME with exactly the same love. Is that just? Is that what I deserve? Should I complain or should I bow down in humble thankfulness that I am treated so well, that as one of the “last” I get the same treatment as the “first”?

God loves us where we are now. He does not keep an account book with accumulated credits and debts. The saint can apostatise and distance himself totally from God – forever. The lifetime sinner can be converted on his deathbed. But we should remember that the bias, fortunately, is on the side of the sinner. The chances of someone who is truly in a close, loving relationship with God turning apostate is not very likely. It is not at all unlikely, however, for the compulsively religious person whose faith is built on some external, rigid legalism rather than on a tender, loving relationship with God and with others. For the really sinful person, there is always the hope that they will come face to face with the love of God and, after a lifetime of wrongdoing, say a big YES to Jesus.

This means that no matter how many times I fail, no matter how many times I do wrong, no matter how late in life I come to find Jesus, I am assured of the same welcome that the saints get. This is the “justice” of the shepherd who leaves the “good” sheep and spends hours of his time looking for the single one that wandered far from the flock. This is the “justice” of the father who organises a huge feast for the son that has just spent all his father’s money on high living and debauchery, when nothing of the kind had ever been done for the dutiful son who stayed at home. We want to be careful about “knocking” God’s “justice”, especially when we ourselves are so much its beneficiaries.

God’s way, our way

Finally, if this is God’s way of proceeding, it is clearly meant to be our way also. Last Sunday’s Gospel spoke about the importance of forgiving others and being reconciled with them. We need also to learn how to accept people as they are and not to evaluate them just on what they can do, or because of their status in society or their profession, but simply because they are brothers and sisters who need our love and our care. We need to learn how, as God does, to see people as they are now and not constantly drag in their past behaviours.

With the help of God, we can learn to understand and to follow his justice. Our ways can become his ways and our thoughts become his thoughts. We will find it is a wonderfully liberating experience.

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